Bad News for People With Hard-to-Pronounce Names

(Photo: Fady Aziz)

If you have one of those names that people are always struggling to pronounce, we have some bad news for you. 

A new paper (ungated version here) by Simon M. Laham, Peter Koval, and Adam L. Alter finds that an easy name may confer advantages. The authors conducted five studies comparing easy- and hard-to-pronounce names (like Vougiouklakis or Leszczynska, for example): “Studies 1–3 demonstrate that people form more positive impressions of easy-to-pronounce names than of difficult-to-pronounce names.” While the first three studies focused on surnames, a fifth study analyzed both the first and last names of lawyers within law firms and found that “lawyers with more easily pronounceable names occupied superior positions within their firm hierarchy … The effect was independent of firm size, firm ranking, or mean associate salary.”  Furthermore, the authors found that “the effect is independent of name length (Studies 1, 2, and 4), orthographic regularity (Studies 1, 2, and 4), unusualness (Studies 1 and 3), name typicality (Study 3), and name foreignness (Study 5).”

Laham hopes the research will open people’s eyes to their own unrecognized biases: “Such an appreciation may help us de-bias our thinking, leading to fairer, more objective treatment of others.” 

(HT: Cyril Morong)

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  1. Norman Briffa says:

    Laham in the Maltese language means meat. I wonder what effect a surname hasif it represents something edible!

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  2. Iljitsch van Beijnum says:

    I guess I’m screwed then.

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  3. Richard Simon says:

    What the study doesn’t address is the type of name that should be easy to pronounce but somehow isn’t. My own, for instance. It should be an easy name to get: two vowels, each surrounded by a “normal” consonant – no z’s, no x’s, no y’s, no silent letters and you’d think that people would properly pronounce it straight off. But believe it or not, more people get it wrong than get it right!

    So, do people with names that should be easy to pronounce but somehow aren’t discriminated against?

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    • rachel says:

      Or spelled wrong ALL THE TIME. you’d think “Rachel” would be both normal and easy to spell. My favorite is still “Rouchel.”

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  4. me says:

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  5. Cyril Morong says:

    I feel lucky that no one has ever had trouble pronouncing my name. But I still feel the pain of those who are less fortunate than I am

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  6. Jane says:

    I learned this simple truth the hard way, having a literally translated Russian name that is spelled “Yevgeniya”. My first year in America, I realized that I was never called on in class, did not get response to my resume. I started introducing myself as “Jane” (a less-literal translation of the diminutive form of the same Russian name) – and viola, I instantly got better response. Many years later, I still go by Jane.

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  7. Steve S. says:

    Is this related to a correlation or some form of causality? How do you tease out some of the minority/non-dominant culture disadvantages that people already have with these (more ethnic sounding) names?

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  8. Griffin E says:

    The relationship is probably endogenous.

    Don’t high powered, successful parents (who have the means of providing all of life’s advantages) normally name their kids some high powered name?

    Is it not true that parents who have enough foresight to consider the ramifications of a name from it’s inception are probably going to provide superior opportunities than those who don’t?

    This study is probably measuring the effect of parenting rather than a name.

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  9. robyn goldstein says:

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  10. Sheetal Dube says:

    I totally relate to this study. I have an Indian name and have been working in the US for seven years. When I first came here I had low expectations of people pronouncing my name. So I just lived with it. But later I realized that it was becoming a barrier for me to build rapport with others, especially in the business environment. My clients were hesitant to pronounce my name and sometimes avoided taking it – that to me was a missed opportunity.

    To find out if it was just me facing this issue, I participated in a StartupWeekend contest. All most all 90 people agreed that there are these awkward moments of not knowing how to pronounce someone’s name. In a globally connected world, it seemed like solving this one small problem could help me impact a lot of people.

    So I left my job and started A application that allows you to record your name and share it with people you interact with. I hope Audioname will level the playing field for name pronunciations :)

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  11. Eric M. Jones. says:

    But I wonder if certain names also confer better treatment.

    Reservation for Mr. and Mrs. Grubbs…
    Reservation for Mr. and Mrs. Bonaventura…

    Life isn’t fair. My last name is so common I have to use Smith or Brown when sneaking into a hotel with a lady I might not be married to….

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  12. Jake says:

    This is great research. Immediately I went and looked up the names of the senior executives at my company (a very recognizable tax preparation company). All of the C-level executives have very common first names and very pronounceable surnames. I wonder how many other companies have that trend.

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  13. Andrew says:

    Daniel Kahneman talks about this in ch 8 of his newest book.

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  14. MW says:

    What about in academia, where name recognition matters? Is it a disadvantage to be “J. Smith” because nobody will remember that you were *the* J. Smith who wrote that seminal paper on nominative determinism? T. Vougiouklakis wouldn’t suffer from that problem, but they might still lose out compared to A. Crowhill whose name is easy to pronounce, easy to remember, and yet also rare.

    When working in large collaborations, is it an advantage to be I. Bond rather than P. Yock, so that you come first in alphabetic author lists?

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    • Iljitsch van Beijnum says:

      MW: good point. People may not know how to pronounce my name but on the other hand I’m all over the first page of Google results for either my first or last name and I can always just use my first name as a user name.

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    • Samuel Forrest says:

      Ironically, once I learn a complicated name, I tend to remember it better than easier-to-pronounce names that are generally more common. For example, I remember Yaczek Marczynski from 17 years ago, Joachim, Neerajakshulu, Yargici, etc. Wonder if this is true for anyone else?

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  15. Jon Visaisouk says:

    Hi everyone,

    Luckily now there is a tool for people like us! It is called an Audible Name Tag and it pronounces your name for others thru emails, digital docs, websites, etc.

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  16. Angela Dawn says:

    My last name is phonetically spelled, but people still trip up over it due to the length. My last name is 12 letters and 5 syllables long. It is my married last name, before I had a 3 letter 1 syllable last name. Every time I have to take 2 minutes to spell my last name over the phone, I wonder if I should have kept my maiden name.

    But my name hasn’t held me back in any way. Ironically I still had to spell my maiden name because it had 2 very common spellings, but it only took 2 seconds of my time.

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  17. Leszek Leszczynski says:

    Being almost shown as a negative example (Leszczynska is just a feminine version of my surname), I am deeply concerned.

    However, I recall being in Paris one time, in their adorable science museum, seeing (to my delight) that the Polish language deserved a mention in the “hardest languages” alley, being illustrated with “Przest?pstwo” – good luck, English speakers.

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  18. TobysMommy says:

    So what you’re saying is my son, Tobias Xander, will never succeed? I don’t think so. “Toby” is REALLY easy 😉

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  19. Emily says:

    Hmmm. My favorite is “How do you spell your ‘Emily’?” Apparently, people here in the South like to screw it up any way they can–Emmalee, Emmily, Emylee, Emmaleigh. Ugh! It’s easy–5 letters, 2 hard consonants.

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